Using mediation to resolve a federal lawsuit, plaintiffs from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in northeastern Montana, have taken Native people a big step forward in their quest for equal voting rights. A magistrate judge’s March 14 order recommends that the federal district court overseeing the suit, Jackson v. The Board of Trustees of Wolf Point School District, reapportion a local school board as agreed by the plaintiffs and defendants. Going forward, the board will include one at-large and five single-member election districts, said plaintiffs’ attorney, Laughlin McDonald, longtime head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
The new arrangement will be fully in effect in 2015 and will ensure one-person-one-vote representation, according to McDonald. The outcome will reverberate through voting-rights litigation nationwide, he added. “This result demonstrates that the courts are concerned that Native people have equal access to the vote. The lesson will be felt in Indian country and, beyond that, in districts that include any minorities.”
The Montana School Boards Association defended the Wolf Point board; association attorney Tony C. Koenig has told ICTMN that a negotiated settlement was his client’s aim. His side won a concession; the district was not “bailed in” for ongoing Justice Department oversight, as the plaintiffs had requested.
The lawsuit’s national import is matched by its local significance. Schools in Wolf Point can now begin improving, according to McDonald. He said he’d seen that trajectory repeatedly in decades of successful voting-rights litigation, even in jurisdictions with a long history of severe inequality and discrimination.
“Things will not change overnight,” McDonald cautioned. “However, with redistricting, new people, including tribal members, will be in decision-making positions in the schools. With them present, the old language can’t be used. The way people think will start to change, along with policies and practices.”
This article is part of a project supported by the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.